Increase your willpower and self-control

Illustration of willpower against unhealthy foods

Self-control is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. Miranda Fitzgerald explains how we can all become willpower superheroes

Imagine there’s a big slice of cake in front of you. It looks delicious. You can’t resist the temptation. You give in and gobble it down. But as you brush the last crumbs from your lips, you’re already regretting your lack of willpower.

Willpower is essential for avoiding unhealthy habits (like smoking or eating certain foods) and adopting healthy habits, such as regular physical activity and eating more fruit and vegetables. Changes like these can help reduce your risk of a heart event if you have heart and circulatory disease, or reduce your risk of developing heart disease in the first place. But don’t despair if your self-control is lacking – understanding how willpower works can help strengthen it.  

What is willpower? 

Professor Walter Mischel, based at Columbia University, New York, was one of the first psychologists to study willpower. He defines it as “just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts”. In other words, your rational brain can overcome your impulsive, emotional brain. Both are involved in decision-making, but the strength of our willpower determines our actions. For example, when you crave sugary foods, you might try to resist by concentrating on the negative effects on your teeth and your waistline – or by focusing on positive motivations, like being able to fit into your favourite jeans. If you don’t eat the biscuits, your rational brain has triumphed. 

It seems that people with good self-control stay out of trouble and minimise problems

Dr Roy Baumeister
Professor of Psychology

There are three steps to making the right decision, according to Dr Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. These are: setting measurable targets, making them realistic, and having the willpower to follow them through. 

The ‘realistic’ part is important for your willpower to succeed. For example, if you decide you’re going to go from couch potato to marathon runner in one month by exercising every day until you drop, your unrealistic goal is likely to fail after the initial burst of enthusiasm. 

To increase your chances of success, don’t set goals that are too strict and don’t let one slip-up convince you the whole day is a write-off. Dr Baumeister says: “Dieters may have a fixed target in mind for their maximum daily calories, and when they exceed it for some reason, they may regard their diet as blown for the day. That day is therefore mentally classified as a failure. Virtue cannot resume until tomorrow. But that doesn’t need to be the case.” 

Dr Baumeister believes willpower is related to the energy that is available to the brain. The brain uses 20 per cent of energy produced by the body and if we haven’t eaten enough, our ability to maintain willpower suffers. Planning a regular meal pattern and choosing wholegrain starchy carbohydrates and other slow-energy-releasing foods as part of a balanced diet will help ensure you have the energy supplies you need. It will also help you avoid getting hungry between meals and making rash, unhealthy choices – one of the reasons many crash diets fail. 

Healthy and unhealthy meal options on a plate

Dr Baumeister says: “After making a lot of decisions, your self-control is lower and conversely, after exerting self-control, your capacity for making decisions is lower. As you make a bunch of decisions, you gradually use the energy you have available and subsequent decisions are more passive and tend to go with the default option.” 

Fortunately, this energy reduction is only short-term and we can strengthen our willpower, like a muscle, by using it more. A study published in the British Journal of Psychology in 2006 showed that just two months of regular exercise can improve concentration, focus, impulse control and self-awareness – all aspects of willpower. The study authors suggested that the self-control needed to keep exercising regularly helped improve self-control in other areas. In addition, improving your health – physical or mental – boosts your ability to say no.  

Willpower after a heart event 

A heart attack or heart diagnosis often prompts people to make lifestyle changes. After a heart event, cardiac rehabilitation courses provide information on healthy eating and lifestyle, including regular exercise, so this can be a good way to forge new habits. Many cardiac rehab programmes also teach ways to deal with stress.   

“What stress really does is deplete willpower, which diminishes your ability to control those emotions,” warns Dr Baumeister. This is why you’re more likely to open a bottle of wine after a tough day at work. So if you’re trying to make healthy lifestyle changes, try to deal with sources of stress. The aftermath of a heart event can be a very stressful time. 

What stress really does is deplete willpower, which diminishes your ability to control those emotions

Dr Roy Baumeister
Professor of Psychology

One in three of us don’t get enough sleep, according to the NHS, which can have consequences for your health and your willpower. Try to get a regular eight hours a night (or the amount that is right for you). 

“You might think that people with really strong self-control struggle through this grim existence, forcing themselves constantly to do the right thing,” says Dr Baumeister. “But that’s not correct. What it seems is that people with good self-control stay out of trouble and minimise problems.”  

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